Through the windows she looks, finding inspiration for her beautiful watercolors in all seasons. Artist Mary Lou Peters spends part of the year peering through the large windows of her Cheboygan home until spring, and then it’s all about opening windows and doors, clearing pathways, and meandering out to her astonishing gardens.
“I look out onto Lake Huron, and technically the Straits of Mackinac, which stretches from Cheboygan to around Sturgeon Point, where the lighthouse is. I used to think blue was blue until I moved here in 2000 and started watching the different moods of the lake. And the skies are amazing,” she says.
Gardens rank high on the prolific watercolorist’s subject-matter list. “My gardens and the gardens of Mackinac Island inspire me, geraniums especially!”
About those geraniums — you may already be familiar with her bouncy, fluffy, wavy red blooms. Her cheery floral vignettes grace notecards, T-shirts, prints, and original artwork, and have filled shop shelves across Mackinac Island for several years. You may even have seen the sunny Peters working on a painting in one of the island’s gift shops, intriguing shoppers with her special techniques.
She also likes to gather with artist friends at a northern Michigan nursery for the day, splashing watery pools of fresh paint tones onto paper and moving paints with an adeptness that many find difficult to even attempt to imitate. Says artist pal Laura Miller, of Beverly Hills: “She does such a subtle blending; her colors flow so naturally. There’s softness yet clarity.”
Peters’ masterful techniques show up in garden paintings, lighthouse scenes, landscapes, and, of course, images of her beloved geraniums.
Why the love of geraniums? “My third-grade teacher had red geraniums in terra cotta pots lined up on a windowsill all year long,” recalls Peters, who grew up in East Tawas and has written two books featuring illustrations and meditations. “I just loved them, and I remember staring at them. Of course, I never would have thought I’d paint them some day. Then, when I started going to the island, I fell in love with its lilacs — but they only last three weeks or so. The island geraniums stay beautiful from May through the end of October.”
Mackinac Island is, indeed, known for its gorgeous lilacs — but also for its pots upon pots of geraniums. Many of the red and pink beauties trail out of window boxes, while others fill hundreds of containers on porches and in hanging baskets.
“I remember a shop owner said, send me geraniums, I can sell them,” Peters recalls. So she started painting geraniums galore — not only to sell, but because she adores them. Her love affair is so strong, in fact, that when she was recently selecting a paint color for the exterior of her home, she chose yellow. “The main color consideration was that it had to look good with red geraniums,” she says.
Peters first took an art class at age 30-something through an art center in Mount Pleasant, where she lived at the time. She taught elementary school there, as well.
“A friend talked me into taking the class. I learned some things, but didn’t have time to pursue art because of my working life and because I had a family to raise.” It was after she retired, at age 52, that Peters found more time to pursue art. “I retired early. We had a cottage in Cheboygan, and over the years we built on and moved there permanently. My old kitchen became an art studio.” After taking more art classes, Peters recognized that expressing her take on the world’s beauty could be more than a hobby for her.
“In the very beginning of my art career, I contacted a store about selling my art,” she remembers. A buyer from one shop liked her pieces, “but then when I finally heard from her, she said they had a new manager and they didn’t think it was a good fit. My heart was broken.” Her husband, Tom Peters, ever the cheerleader, told his wife to find a different shop that would embrace her buoyant, colorful style. That’s how she found herself walking into Lilacs and Lace on Mackinac Island. “The owner looked at my notecards and saw geraniums and lilacs and said, If you can get me more, I’ll take them.
“I have to admit, I struggled with my style, but then I found it when someone said to me that my work was whimsical — a whimsical twist on realism,” says Peters, who prefers to paint in gardens.
Over time, her paintings were turned into prints, and that was the start of a bustling art career that even led her to teach. “It was Mary Jane Barnwell from Mackinac Island’s Island Bookstore who said, Have you thought of teaching watercolor?” (Barnwell also was involved with the Arts Council on the island.)
“I said, No, I’m done writing lesson plans!” But Peters did, indeed, take up teaching watercolor painting in Florida, Cheboygan, Boyne City, Mackinaw City, her own home gardens, and at the Mackinac Arts Council on Mackinac Island. “I taught for about 10 years,” she says.
Today, looking out to Lake Huron and the Straits, Peters is happy to report that she’s retiring from the business of art, “because it’s time,” she says. Her sage advice to herself allows her to contemplate things like what’s new in her gardens. “I needed to take a closer look at how I’m spending time. I’ve spent a lot of time not painting for myself.”
As content as a hummingbird snacking on a bee balm flower, Peters says there’s nothing better than “plopping my lawn chair down in the middle of the garden to see what’s blooming at the time.” And then, of course, she sketches it. “Small pictures and sketches aren’t what sells, but I love painting like that.” Her subject matter ranges from daisies and coneflowers to ranunculus, primrose, and, naturally, geraniums. Basically, “whatever the bunnies aren’t eating,” she says with a laugh.
To those thinking about learning how to paint watercolors, Peters shares some words of wisdom: “You must let go of control, because you can’t control water. And if you really want to do this, you have to practice, and you have to give yourself a chance.”
Also, she says, don’t listen to others. “I sensed watercolor painting would be hard because that’s what people told me,” Peters recalls. “But the moral of that story is, don’t listen to anyone until you try it yourself.”
View Peters’ works on two Facebook pages: Mary Lou Peters and Watercolor Paintings by Mary Lou Peters. She’s also on Instagram at maryloupeterspainter. Her note cards, prints, and more are available at Lilacs and Lace and The Lilac Gallery, both on Mackinac Island, and Main Street Art in Milford.
By Megan Swoyer – Photography by Sara Wright